Behind Closed Doors: Asleep in New England

“What pains we take with our beds, robbing the nests of birds & their breasts – this shelter within a shelter…”

Henry D. Thoreau, Journal, Winter 1846

People spend approximately one third of their lives in bed, a simple fact reflected in the rich variety of household objects related to sleep and associated practices. What goes on behind the closed doors of the bedroom raises interesting questions of privacy, health, comfort, intimacy, status, and fashion that can be explored through objects as diverse as feather beds and cradles, nightgowns and high chests, coverlets and coffins.

While the rhythms of life from birth to death remain unchanged over centuries, domestic spaces and practices changed a good deal from the 17ththrough the 19th century. In response to factors ranging from prosperity and poverty, family size and advancing age, technological innovation, and the severity of seasons, the bed – that shelter within a shelter that Thoreau wrote about – has seen many variations.

The exhibition, on view at the Concord Museum from October 10, 2014 through March 22, 2015, was organized by Concord Museum Consulting Curators Jane and Richard Nylander.  Dressing tables, necessary chairs, washstands, high chests, coffins, cradles, and adult cradles from the Concord Museum’s decorative arts collection and from the collections of Historic New England, Old Sturbridge Village, and other New England institutions were on display.

This on-line exhibition takes you Behind Closed Doors and brings together new material for an extraordinary experience. LEARN how to make a bed in the 18th century; EXPLORE surviving objects and important bed hanging restoration projects; DISCOVER new research about sleep, then and now.

Bedtime in New England might vary day to day, depending on such factors as health, work, and time of year, but it was usually between about nine and ten at night.

Making a bed in the 1700s was more complicated than it is today. Watch Consulting Curator Jane Nylander explain how to make a bed in the 18th century.

Whether out of necessity or preference, it was customary to share beds in New England. Mothers would take nursing infants into bed with them; the toddler would move to the trundle bed to join a sibling two or three years older.

To Learn More

Walk through Behind Closed Doors: Asleep in New England exhibition in the Wallace Kane Gallery at the Concord Museum. Installation photographs by Mary Orr.

Follow along on “Rooms with a Past” – a Concord Trail Guide of historic bedrooms (print and fold PDF to use).

Explore the Peter Cushing House Bedchamber in Hingham, Massachusetts, as depicted by Ella Emory in 1878; Courtesy of Historic New England.

Background photo: Interior Door, New England, 17th century, Concord Museum; Gift of Rosita Corey and Elizabeth Corey Bourquin in memory of their mother, Dorothy Peters Corey (2010) 2010.24. Photo by David Bohl.

Photo/film credits: Teri J. Pieper; Mary Orr; Six One Seven Studios